Soccer in 2012: A year when history was made

December 26, 2012, 1:02 PM

It seems clichéd to say it, but 2012 really was a year for the ages in soccer.

From the Canadian women’s team earning an Olympic bronze medal, to Lionel Messi scoring 91 goals, and Spain winning a third consecutive major tournament, history was repeatedly made in the past 12 months.

And in-between the records being set, there were moments of brilliance and heartache.

Domestically, there were some glorious success stories to celebrate: the aforementioned women’s side, the Vancouver Whitecaps becoming the first Canadian team to qualify for the MLS playoffs and the Montreal Impact looking impressive in their inaugural MLS season.

There were also a number of failures, namely Canada being eliminated from World Cup contention and Toronto FC finishing last place and failing to qualify for the MLS playoffs for a sixth straight year.

Internationally, there were countless moments that took our collective breath away: Manchester City winning the Premiership crown in a dramatic final day of the campaign, Spain crushing Italy in the Euro 2012 final, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s amazing bicycle kick strike for Sweden against England.

There were heroes (Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson) and there were villains (John Terry and Luis Suarez). And there were those who restored our faith in the beautiful game (Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrea Pirlo, Andres Iniesta and Radamel Falcao).

All of the events, teams and players helped to make 2012 one of the most memorable in recent soccer history.

2013 will have its work cut out for itself in trying to equal the drama and entertainment that 2012 provided.

In the meantime, let’s look at some of the best and worst of the past 12 months.

Player of the year: Lionel Messi

There can only be one choice.

Lionel Messi didn’t win a major trophy in 2012, aside for the Copa del Rey. Barcelona bowed out in the semifinals of the Champions League and finished nine points off the pace of La Liga winners Real Madrid.

But what Messi did do this past year was score goals – lots and lots of goals.

The 25-year-old Messi established a new world record for the most goals in a calendar year when he found the net a whopping 91 times – 91 times!! – in 2012.

The Argentine ace scored 79 goals for Barcelona: 59 in the Spanish league, 13 in the Champions League, five in the Copa del Rey and two in the Spanish Super Cup. He also had 12 for Argentina’s national team: five in World Cup qualifiers and seven in friendlies.

In scoring 91 goals, Messi broke German great Gerd Mueller’s 40-year-old milestone of 85 goals.

He began the year in January by claiming FIFA world player of the year honours for the third time in a row, finished as the top scorer in last season’s Champions League and La Liga campaigns, and won the Golden Shoe award as the top scorer in European club soccer.

Honourable mentions: Cristiano Ronaldo (led Real Madrid to La Liga title), Andres Iniesta (MVP of Euro 2012 for Spain), Andrea Pirlo (helped Juventus win Serie A crown), Radamael Falcao (brilliant for both Colombia and Atletico Madrid).

Newsmaker of the year: Christine Sinclair

For the majority of 2012, only one player dominated soccer headlines in Canada: Christine Sinclair.

Captain of the Canadian women’s team, Sinclair began the year in style by scoring a tournament-high nine goals at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying competition in Vancouver.

More goals would follow for the 29-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C. – 23 in total for the calendar year – including the six she scored in London to set an Olympic record and win the Golden Boot as the competition’s top scorer.

But it was her hat trick in a memorable extra-time semifinal loss to the United States that was THE talking point of the Games for Canadians, as Sinclair cemented her legend as a sports icon in this country.

She and her teammates would go on to beat France to claim the bronze medal. But in the eyes of millions of Canadians, Sinclair was a gold medal champion after her gutsy display at the Olympics. Little wonder that she served as Canada’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies in London.

There were more accolades for Sinclair when she returned home, as she was named Sportsnet’s Athlete of the Year and won the 2012 Lou Marsh Award.

Honourable mentions: Roberto Di Matteo (led Chelsea to its first Champions League title), John Terry (was in the news for all the wrong reasons), David Beckham (left MLS after five seasons, Robin van Persie (moved in a big-money transfer from Arsenal to Manchester United).

Team of the year: Spain

All hail Spain, the greatest national team of its era!

After comfortably cruising through the group stage and the first two rounds of the knockout stage, the Spanish shifted into high gear and poured on the style in dismantling Italy 4-0 in the final of Euro 2012 in Ukraine.

Led by the wonderful midfield duo of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, La Roja made history by becoming the first nation to repeat as European champions. The Spanish were also the first side to win three consecutive major tournaments: Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup, and Euro 2012.

En route to the final, Spain was labelled “boring,” fans and critics unimpressed and having grown tired of their magnificent tiki taka and lack of direct play.

Italy challenged Spain during a 1-1 draw in the group stage, and after it dispatched Germany, touted as the tournament favourite, many thought the Azzurri could derail the Spanish juggernaut.

Turns out the Italians were on a fool’s errand. Spain made Italy look decidedly average, humbling the Italians by dominating possession and dictating the pace of the game as though they were facing a Sunday pub team.

Honourable mentions: Corinthians (South American and World champions), Juventus (Italian champions), Chelsea (European and FA Cup champions), Atletico Madrid (Europa League champions).

Goal of the year: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Without a doubt, Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored THE best goal of 2012 with an incredible overhead kick from 30 yards out in a friendly against England in November.

Having already netted a hat trick, the “Super Swede” bagged his fourth goal of the game with an effort that combined beauty, grace, daring, genius and ingenuity. It was, quite simply, the very picture of athletic poetry in motion.

Within minutes, Ibrahanovic’s amazing strike went viral on YouTube, and Twitter exploded with a long list of superlatives hurled at the Swedish striker by fans from around the globe.

Soon after a debate ensued over where Ibrahanovic’s stunner stood among the greatest goals of all-time. Comparisons were made to Diego Maradona’s “goal of the century” against England at the 1986 World Cup, and Marco van Basten’s improbable volley from an impossible angle for the Netherlands versus the Soviet Union in the Euro ’88 final.

The argument continues on to this day and the issue will likely never be settled. But Ibrahimovic’s goal deserves a place in soccer’s pantheon, having reminded us of the sport’s best virtues and why it’s called “the beautiful game.”

Honourable mentions: Eric Hassli, Vancouver Whitecaps | Radamel Falcao, Atletico Madrid | Neymar, Santos and Miroslav Stoch, Fenerbahce

Disappointment of the year: Canada

Nobody saw it coming.

Sure, there were some questions as to whether they could win or even earn the point that would have seen them through to the final stage of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region.

But 8-1?

Canada’s shocking seven-goal loss to Honduras in San Pedro Sula in October will forever be known as the “Humiliation in Honduras” and rightly so.

The disgraceful and pathetic performance (let’s not mince words here or sugar coat it) eliminated Canada from World Cup contention, meaning the Reds’ World Cup drought will last until 2018 in Russia, at the very least.

It all could have been so very different for Canada, who put in solid performances in the semifinal group stage of the qualifiers and went into the game against Honduras with its fate in its own hands.

A draw or win would have seen the Reds move on to “the Hex” for the first time since 1998, and would have moved one step closer to ending its World Cup famine.

An appearance in the Hex would also have put Canada on the front pages, and seen the entire country get behind the team like they did with the women’s side at the Olympics.

Instead, Canada capitulated.

Honourable mentions: Barcelona (failed to win La Liga or Champions League), Manchester City (bowed out in group stage of Champions League for a second straight season), Toronto FC (failed to make MLS playoffs for a sixth consecutive season), and Spain’s Under-23 team (failed to win a game at London Olympics, finished last in its group).

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